Great American Road Trip

Posted by Ron on July 27th, 2016 filed in Travel
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Jaime’s extended family has a reunion every other year hosted by a different branch of the family tree in a different part of the country.  This year it was hosted at the campground in West Yellowstone, Montana, just outside of Yellowstone National Park.  We originally planned to drive out with our camper but after a friend warned me about mountain driving and we realized it would require a few extra days off work we decided to forego it this time.  Instead we rented a more fuel-efficient car for the long drive out and then flew back from Salt Lake City.

While trying to figure out the best route out West, I discovered a web site (and app) called RoadTrippers that shows you attractions/hotels/etc along the way within a certain number of miles off your route.  It was great to find a lot of quirky stops along the way to help break up the long stretches of flat land.  We had planned to stay in the middle of nowhere the first night but ultimately came to the conclusion that it was worth a longer drive the first day to stay in a real city the first night.

We started at around 6am on a Saturday.  Our first stop was a Fiberglass Mold Graveyard that had no signage of any kind — it was just piles of old fiberglass molds next to an auto body shop.  I don’t think it gets many visitors as the mechanic working seemed surprised when we pulled up and asked if we could look around.  It was a completely random collection and very unique to see.  Worth a stop.  Next up was the iconic Spam Museum.  It has actually relocated very recently to a small downtown area.  Everything was very shiny and new.  Very well done, lots of exhibits and quirky, hip photo-ready spots.  Also a great kids play area and gift shop.  Last stop for the day was a Jolly Green Giant statue in the middle of nowhere.  Very quick stop as there’s nothing to do besides snap a couple of pictures.  Would be a good stop for a picnic lunch next time.

We arrived in Sioux Falls right before dinner time.  Jaime has a couple friends in the area so we took up their recommendation and ate at Fiero Pizza.  It’s a counter service place but the pizzas were delicious!  Sioux Falls has a great main road through town that is meant for strolling — there is a lot of art scattered along both sides of the street.  We stopped at a pastry place for some dessert as well.  Afterward, we went back to the hotel and when the kids went to sleep, I sneaked out to a bar called Monks House of Ale Repute, based on the name alone.  They had really good beer that they make on-site.

The next morning we took a long walk along the river to Falls Park and enjoyed the wide and long series of waterfalls that the city is named for.  There is a visitors center with a tower that you can go up for free and get a better view.  We then went back to the hotel and packed up for the next long day.  On the way out of town, we stopped at a Sunken Garden I read about but it was a bust and I wouldn’t recommend it.

Our first stop was just outside of town, a ghost town called 1880 Cowboy Town.  The reviews I read said it was extremely cheesy, not well maintained, and most exhibits were broken.  I knew we had to check it out!  There was a large buffalo herd outside which was our first encounter with them so it was fun.  Within the ghost town itself, the reviews were accurate and it was an amusing train wreck.  It looks like nothing had been touched since the 70s.  There were about 15 buildings along a single street.  Some had “working” old school animatronics though they were too quiet too hear, some had missing buttons so you couldn’t attempt to start them, and some just had piles of leftover parts within them.  There was an watch tower to climb for a better view.  Jaime didn’t want to go up the death trap but it actually looked like the only thing kept up to date so Lydia and I checked it out.

A few hours down the road we went to the Porter Sculpture Park, a collection of very strange and unique industrial art sculptures done by a single person.  Edie was sleeping so Jaime went by herself and while she was touring, the owner/sculptor came over and let me know that Lydia and I could tour for free once she was done.  Definitely check out the link with pictures as I can’t begin to describe them.  Highly recommended stop!  On the way out, a friendly cop stopped me and claimed I didn’t come to a complete stop at a stop sign in the middle of nowhere.  Luckily it was just a quick scolding and he let us go on our way.

Next stop was another few hours down the highway, the Corn Palace.  A coworker had recommended skipping since it’s not actually made out of corn but others said it was a must-see.  We would not recommend it.  While the outside is kind of cool for its art made out of corn covering all of the walls, it was pretty far off the highway and there’s nothing to do inside.  It’s basically a local sports venue that has a pseudo flea market on the main floor and an 8th grade science fair all about corn on the second floor.  Last stop of the day was the famous Wall Drug store, known for a lot of billboards leading up to it and having tons and tons of souvenirs to buy.  We had a quick dinner there since it was the only thing we could find open before heading to our hotel for the night.

Our hotel, the Cedar Pass Lodge, is actually located within the Badlands National Park.  We had half of a fairly large cabin and it was amazing to wake up within the park and see the geological formations right out the window.  We backtracked a little bit for our first stop at the Minuteman Missile Site, D-9.  It was hard to find information on hours and once there it became clear why — it’s a very small site with no visitor center and just a loosely chained fence that you squeeze into it.  There is a sign with a phone number you can call for a ‘walking tour’ which we did.  It’s just a single missile standing vertically underground and an antenna to be controlled remotely.  Missile sites like these were all over the country during the Cold War and intentionally in the middle of nowhere in case they were attacked.  After the war ended, all sites were closed except for this one as a historic reminder.  The rest of the morning was spent slowly driving the length of the Badlands and stopping at most overlooks.  I had been here as a kid but it was much more impressive as an adult.  The formations are so massive and expansive it’s mind-boggling.  Well worth the scenic drive.

Good friends of ours ended up doing a somewhat similar road trip to ours the week before.  They were just wrapping up and heading back as we were venturing west.  We met in the middle at Wind Cave National Park.  After a picnic lunch where both families kids were having a blast together, we took a tour of one of the several caves available.  We opted for the one with less stopping to keep the kids moving.  Little did we know that it was mostly single-file walking so we didn’t get to chit-chat as much as we thought we would.  Still a great stop that we all enjoyed.  We went together as a group to Crazy Horse as well.  We toured the visitors center and took in the large, unfinished carving.  Hopefully they get the funds to finish it at some point.  We then parted ways with our friends and continued our road trips in opposite directions.

For us, the next stop was Mount Rushmore.  It is much bigger than you’d think.  We learned that the shape of it and the directions the presidents are looking were driven largely by where solid rock was found and where cracks were exposed.  As we were walking out, we ran into Jaime’s cousin!  Note that we were 700 miles and several days away from the reunion we were all attending.  We went our separate ways after a quick chat and then headed to Cosmos Mystery Area as a treat for Lydia who was doing great on the trip.  It’s mostly comprised of a tilted cabin that messes with your head and they perform several different mind-bending illusions in and around the cabin.  Jaime and I volunteered for one of them and it was pretty surreal.  Go in with a silly and open mind to enjoy it.  We ended the night in Deadwood at a lodge with a casino, where I gambled a bit.

The next morning we crossed into Wyoming and visited Devils Tower.  It’s a large rock formation sticking out of the ground surrounded by flat lands.  It was very sunny and hot so we only hiked around about a quarter of it but it was a great introduction to beautiful Wyoming.  Driving through the state was a pleasure.  One particular stretch in the Wind River Canyon area just outside of Thermopolis was the most scenic drive I can recall.  We stopped in Thermopolis for the Wyoming Dinosaur Center.  They have a dig site nearby but we had just missed the last tour of the day.  We weren’t too upset though because the heat was unbearable.  We toured the museum which is basically just a large warehouse and were quite impressed by the quantity and setup.  It’s a mix of replicas and real fossils but they are clear on what’s what and where all of the fossils were found.  We had a quick meal at the Cowboy Cafe in Dubois before finishing the road trip to Jackson Hole for the night.

The next morning we went to downtown Jackson and took a stagecoach tour of the area.  The kids loved it.  Afterward, we took the Aerial Tram from nearby Teton Village to the top of Rendezvous Mountain.  The views from the top were incredible.  You could see the tops of the Tetons and there were mountains on all sides.  We were high up enough to still have snow too.  Lydia wasn’t having as much fun as I was so we didn’t stay up there very long.  Still well worth the quick visit.  We had lunch in Teton Village before heading north to take the scenic route through Grand Teton National Park.  This was another beautiful drive and we stopped at a couple places along the way.  We arrived in West Yellowstone, MT for the reunion in the evening and met up with Jaime’s family for dinner.

The first day we decided to see if there was any possible last minute whitewater rafting trips we could take.  We found a place in Big Sky, MT which was farther than more popular places but closer time-wise (traffic in Yellowstone is slow and painful).  Jaime’s parents graciously volunteered to watch the kids for a few hours so off we went with Jaime’s sister.  The tour company seemed a bit disorganized and we ended up leaving about 45 minutes late.  The rapids were great though and it was an awesome experience!

The following day we spent entirely within Yellowstone National Park.  We did the lower loop road and visited Midway Geyser Basin with the Grand Prismatic Spring (amazing), Black Sands Geyser Basin, Old Faithful (of course), and Artist Point (quick photo op).  We arrived just in time for the communal dinner with everyone.

Our last full day was planned to be the upper loop road to see the Norris Geyser Basin and the Mammoth Terraces but we decided to save them for next time.  Instead, we walked around downtown West Yellowstone, shopped a bit, ate lunch, and then headed back towards the campground.  A few miles past the campground was a historic site called Earthquake Lake where a massive landslide cut off a river to form the lake and covered a different campground in the middle of the night.  28 people died in the landslide and you can see trees sticking out of the water where the campground once was.  Also, several cabins were lifted up and moved down the river.  We hiked about a mile out to see what’s left of the cabins in the middle of a large field, far from where they were.  Back at our campground, Lydia was itching to go on a boat ride.  Unfortunately it was too windy to rent a boat but fortunately they recognized our dilemma and let Lydia and Jaime’s sister go on a boat with life jackets and just sway back and forth for a simulated boat ride experience.

The next morning, we left before sunrise for the five hour drive to Salt Lake City where we were flying out of.  In hindsight, we probably should have flown out of Bozeman (an hour away) but SLC was much cheaper at the time.  The flight home was uneventful.  Overall, it was a great trip.  Very different from our usual travel style (again; see last blog post).  All of the stops along the way made it an interesting experience and the kids were champs on the long haul.

Next up, our biannual trip to Maine!


Ireland and Northern Ireland

Posted by Ron on April 24th, 2016 filed in Travel
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So Jaime had a week of vacation carried over from last year that she had to use or lose by the end of March.  Clearly that meant we needed to leave the country.  Because of how well the kids did in South America due to similar times we were looking at Central America or the Caribbean initially but the Zika virus scared us away.  We had an extra timeshare week to use so we just browsed all available trading options around the world and Ireland jumped out at us.  Typically timeshares don’t align with our travel style for two reasons: 1) we don’t stay in one place for a week straight, and 2) they are usually located outside of major cities and require a car rental.  The Ireland timeshare was perfect because it was centrally located and we wanted to see a lot of sights around the country.  We added in an overnight in Belfast in the middle of the week to cover the whole island and add a new country.

We took an overnight flight hoping the kids would sleep, but of course Lydia didn’t sleep a wink.  When we arrived, we were exhausted.  It’s about a 90 minute drive to the timeshare, the 13th century Knocktopher Abbey.  They left the keys in an envelope outside for us since we arrived before reception opened but the kids were passed out so we all took a nap in the car for a couple hours.  After unloading the car, we decided to hit a couple local sights and get to bed early.  The first stop was the Dunmore Caves.  Edie was still sleeping so only Lydia and I went in.  The caves were unique in that they were not very deep or far from the outside.  It was more like walking under a hanging cliff after walking down 700 stairs outside.  Our next stop was the nearest big city Kilkenny.  It is a great city and encapsulates everything you picture about an Irish city — old, charming, colorful, and quaint.  We toured the very impressive, completely restored castle and grounds before having dinner and an amazing dessert at Langton’s, a place recommended by a coworker.  A quick 15 minute drive back to the abbey and we slept like rocks.

Our first driving day’s target was Galway on the west coast.  I had planned stops along the way to and from each city to break up the drive.  After a roadside drive-by visit to Ballaghmore Castle, we went to the first official stop, Birr Castle.  The castle is still a private residence but you can walk the grounds which includes the Great Telescope (the largest in the world for 70 years), beautiful gardens, and a kid’s play area that Lydia thoroughly enjoyed.  In Galway, we wandered around all of the pedestrian areas on and around High Street.  We stopped for lunch at the most Irish-sounding place, McSwiggan’s, which we later found out is a well-known and highly recommended place.  After some more walking around, we left to reach our next destination before sunset.  It ended up being much closer than we thought.  When we arrived at Clonmacnoise, a 6th century monastery, it was seemingly closed and the sun was nearly set.  I jumped from the car and snapped what pictures I could.  Within 5 minutes, it was too dark for pictures, but the ruins were quite a sight to see.  The walls have collapsed in very strange ways; we’ll definitely have to explore more next time.

The next day we headed to the southwest towards Cork.  The first stop along the way is marketed as the most visited site in Ireland (even though I’d never heard of it), Rock of Cashel.  It’s an impressive set of ruins on the top of a hill with great views, an old cemetery, and another ruin next door.  After that we continued to Cahir Castle, one of the largest in Ireland.  We practically had the entire castle to ourselves which made it an extra special stop.  In Cork, we just walked around a bit.  It felt very similar to Galway but I think Galway’s pedestrian areas are more extensive.  We had read about an old market called the English Market but it was mostly fresh meats and produce so there wasn’t much for us to do there.  They do have an amazing restaurant along the balcony in one area called Farmgate Cafe where we ate lunch.  Last stop of the day was the famous Blarney Castle.  I had expected it to be extremely touristy though it wasn’t at all.  The grounds are massive but since it was late in the day the ticket taker recommended that we head straight to the castle.  The castle itself is more beautiful than I imagined.  It’s a large hallowed-out tower and the famous stone you kiss is along one side of the top.  An old man holds your leg as you dangle off the edge (there is also a metal grate under your head).  Lydia didn’t like the narrow spiral staircases to get to the top so Jaime went by herself and did not kiss the stone.  After she came back down and traded spots with me, I went up and did it.  Once Jaime saw my cool pictures taken by the castle, she rushed back up to do it before they closed.

Up until today, we had been making a simple breakfast at the abbey since we weren’t in any rush and to save some money.  Today was the day we were driving to Belfast though so we wanted to hit the road asap.  I googled for a random mid-sized city between Kilkenny and Dublin and then searched for best breakfast there.  The city was Carlow but it turns out that the best two places online were out of business so we stopped at the only open business in town — BeaNice.  Luckily for us, it was actually an excellent quiant cafe.  About an hour north of Dublin we stopped at a 5,000 year old prehistoric monument called Newgrange.  It’s a very large circle-shaped monument built out of stones that has been recently restored.  I had seen a few pictures of the outside online but had no idea that you can actually go inside and to the center where there are incredible carved rooms and shapes (no pictures allowed).  Onwards to Belfast after the hour-long tour there.  There are no border controls between Ireland and Northern Ireland.  Just a single small sign that says “Northern Ireland – the sign numbers are in miles”.  So much for a new passport stamp!

Upon arrival in Belfast, it felt noticeably grittier than any of the other cities we’ve been to.  I had foolishly mentioned how the west side of the city was dangerous which spooked Jaime a bit too.  My goal in Belfast was to see the wall murals along the tense border and Jaime’s was to see the Titanic museum.  Unfortunately, it was around 4pm when we arrived and we had missed the last hop-on hop-off tour and the museum would stop new entries by the time we’d arrive there.  We pondered what to do with the remainder of the day.  Jaime was against a self-tour of the murals and it was looking gloomy for walking around downtown.  Just then, a black cab drove by and I remembered the tour my sister and neighbors highly recommended.  I had thought it wouldn’t be possible with the kids so I hadn’t considered it but when I asked the hotel concierge about it, it wasn’t an issue at all.  A cab arrived for us within 5 minutes and we had no idea what to expect.  It ended up being the most fascinating, information-dense 90 minutes ever.  The murals and stories behind them are extremely interesting.  The gates between Catholics and Protestant neighborhoods still close every night.  The Catholics want to be part of Ireland and fly the Irish flag while the Protestants want to be part of Britain and fly the British flag.  This causes an identity crisis for Northern Ireland itself.  I’m sure they have their own national flag but we never saw one.  The cab dropped us off downtown where we ate dinner and walked back to the hotel.

The next morning we started off at the Titanic museum.  It was very well done and well worth the visit.  We then set off to see a few sights along the northern coast.  We took a slight detour to a place I read about called The Dark Hedges.  It’s hard to describe so take a look at those pictures to fully appreciate it.  Next up was a spot Jaime’s friend recommended, the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge.  It is literally just a rope bridge but the area is gorgeous and you have to hike out to the bridge and get to soak up the views along the way.  Once over the bridge, you can explore a small fishing island as well.  It was very chilly and windy so we didn’t stay too long but it was still a great stop.  After that we went to the most well known natural attraction in Northern Ireland, Giant’s Causeway.  The area where the unique interlocking columns are is relatively small and about a 20 minute walk from the visitor center.  There was also a semi-regualar bus that was about a Euro each direction.  We opted for the bus as we hadn’t fully warmed up from the last stop.  While on the bus, Edie made it known that she demanded a diaper change immediately, which couldn’t happen until we were back at the car.  About two minutes after arriving, Lydia saw a tiny worm and demanded to leave immediately too.  Needless to say, we didn’t get to explore much of the area and just waited for the next bus back.  Another short drive away we made a brief stop at the Bushmills Distillery where I picked up some fresh whiskey.  They were closing so we didn’t have a chance to do the tour.  The last planned stop, Dunluce Castle, had just closed too so we couldn’t tour it but it was the most extravagant castle we’d seen yet.  It was mostly built on a small mountain loosely attached to the mainland via bridge and more castle ruins.  Did I mention there is a cave entrance at the base of the mountain that goes under the castle?  Definitely need to plan on visiting this part of the coastline earlier next time.  We had a hard time finding a restaurant open that wasn’t extremely crowded.  I ended up stopping at a grocery store and asking a local for recommendations.   He recommended the Central Wine Bar in Ballycastle, and I’m so glad he did — the ambiance was great and the food was incredible!  It was an uneventful 4 hour drive back to the abbey after that.

Originally we had planned on our last day at the timeshare being a trip to Limerick, a few castles around there, and the famous Cliffs of Moher, though after seeing the similar cliffs along the northern coastline, I decided it wouldn’t be worth 7 hours of driving.  We will save those, plus the Ring of Kerry, for next time.  Our first stop of the day were the exquisite ruins of Jerpoint Abbey.  The caretaker there spoke highly of nearby Kells Priory so we went there next.  Edie was sleeping so we took turns walking to and around the 7 towers and viewing the castle ruins within the walls connecting the towers.  Afterward, we tried to find Santa Claus’ (St. Nicholas) grave but it’s located on private property and it apparently wasn’t open for the year yet.  Next, we drove about 30 minutes south to the coastal city of Waterford.  Being Good Friday in a Catholic country, nearly everything was closed.  We wanted around a bit, had lunch at a cafe within a public music venue, and then toured the Waterford Crystal factory.  We drove along the South East Coastal Road for a bit but it was more near the coast instead of actual coastline so we headed back to Kilkenny for dinner.  We ended up back at Langton’s to have that amazing dessert again.  We didn’t realize that the more well-known restaurant is tucked away from the street and that apparently we just ate from the bar menu last time.  The full menu and ‘real’ restaurant were a great end to the evening.

We checked out of the timeshare the next morning and headed to Dublin.  It was a crazy busy weekend there as people were celebrating both Easter and the 100 year anniversary of the start of the revolution for independence.  We couldn’t find a place for lunch on the way to Trinity College so I stopped in a random hotel and they recommended M.J. O’Neills near the entrance to the college.  It was the craziest restaurant experience in recent memory — insanely busy, first-come tables across 4-5 tiered floors, and counter-service ordering.  After lunch, we wandered around the college campus and saw the Book of Kells in the Old Library.  The book was cool to see but the build-up to see it was more than the book itself.  The Long Room after the book viewing was well worth the price of admission.  200,000 books lined the walls along two floors.  Check out the college pictures to see it.  We wandered around Dublin for the rest of the afternoon, including a brief stop at St. Stephen’s Green, before meeting an old law school friend of Jaime’s for dinner.  The next morning we left pretty early to catch our flight home, which went off without a hitch.

Overall we had an amazing trip.  It was a totally different type of vacation for us.  We didn’t have much of a schedule, stayed in one place for nearly the whole week, and used it as a base to explore more than we would have seen otherwise.  We are used to knocking out whole countries in a couple days so it surprised us that we spent an entire week and didn’t even cover everything we had planned to do.

Up next is a road trip to Yellowstone in June!

Easter Island and Peru

Posted by Ron on February 28th, 2016 filed in Travel
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I’ve always wanted to go to Easter Island growing up because of the mystic and mystery surrounding the moai statues.  My in-laws were originally planning a trip to South Africa but weren’t very excited about it.  After thinking through all of their previous travels, they decided to revisit Easter Island, where they had both been about five years ago.  They invited us along and added Peru where my father-in-law had spent a few months around his college years.

Door-to-door from Chicago to Hanga Roa, Easter Island was a whopping 28 hours.  We connected through Miami where we met up with my in-laws (including my sister-in-law) and then stopped again in Santiago, Chile.  Easter Island is about a five and a half hour flight from Santiago.  The kids took the lengthy travel very well.  Upon arrival, we were greeted by the hotel owner who presented us each with a fresh flower leis.  That first day we just checked into the hotel, picked up our rental car, and went out to dinner.

The next morning we got up and left around 5:00am in order to catch sunrise over one of the most famous collection of moai.  The island is relatively small [see map] so it’s very easy to get around and return back to Hanga Roa for meals or breaks.  It was a 30 minute race against the sun to Tongariki.  We made it there just in time and stayed around until the sun was completely up.  The 15 large moai were incredible to see and it made for a great introduction to our experience on the island.  Our original plan was to work our way back to the city as Tongariki was the farthest place to go east.  We quickly discovered that we had forgotten to bring any water and would need to eat before doing much else so we started back towards the hotel.  On the way back, we made a quick stop at a large moai on the side of the road known as Te Ara O Te Moai, and again at a larger platform of knocked over moai called Akahanga.  I was the only one to get out of the car at Akahanga since we were in a hurry so I snapped a few pictures and convinced everyone else to come back and explore more another day.

After lunch, we decided to drive northeast across the island to see the sights along the north coast.  Our first stop was Anakena which has a great sand beach, tons of palm trees, and two platforms of restored moai.  A couple of us took our shoes off and spent some time playing in the surf.  This was definitely the most relaxing stop on the island and likely would be full of tourists at high season.  Our next stop along the coast was Te Pito Kura.  This is the largest moai ever stood up — it’s over 30 feet tall and weighs 80 tons!  Nearby there is also a large round stone called the Naval of the World.

Our last stop of the day before dinner was Rano Raraku, also known as The Quarry.  This is the iconic place where there are hundreds of moai heads sitting on and around a mountain of volcanic rock.  It was so amazing to see these in person.  For a long time it was assumed that these were intentionally just heads but upon further investigation and excavation it was discovered that there are full moai bodies underground.  This mountain is where all moai statue originated from.  The locals, Rapa Nui, carved the full statues out of the mountain side (length-wise, facing up), dug giant pits, cut out the bottom, slid them down the hill into the pits, and then intricately carved their backs.  The eyes would not be carved until the statue was upright on it’s final place on the designated platform.  All of these hundreds of heads are simply abandoned carving projects where the pits filled up with dirt over time.  It’s crazy to think of the amount of people working on this many statues and what must have happened to stop all development and leave them as-is.

Our second full day started off by seeing the sights on the interior of the island.  Nearly all of the moai are lining the coasts, facing inwards so there isn’t much to see besides farms and unused land in the middle of the island.  Our first step was at the underwhelming NASA Facility that was built to help detect earthquakes and tsunamis.  It’s been abandoned for a couple decades now and while the guidebook we were using said you can go inside, it was fenced off and locked.  Our first real stop was at Puna Pau, a smaller volcanic mountain where the rock is red.  This is where all of the large hats, called topknots, were carved for the moai.  It was seemingly a later additional to the statues as only a couple hundred out of 1,200 total, had these hats.  Similar to The Quarry, you could see some being carved from the mountainside and several mostly done on the side of the mountain awaiting the trip to their final destination.  These hats were enormous and no one is sure how it was possible to lift these on top of the large moai, especially since they were balanced on a small groove only a couple centimeters deep!

Our next step farther into the interior was a restored platform of seven moai called Akivi.  There are some who say that these moai are unique in that they are looking towards the ocean but it’s hard to know if they are intended to be any different from others since they are so far into the interior.  They could have been overlooking a tribe between them and the coast.  Past Akivi is a very rough dirt road that our car rental place said we were not allow to go down.  On maps of the island the road either isn’t shown at all or it’s a dashed line.  Hopefully it gets paved before our next visit as there are many more moai and several caves in that direction that we weren’t able to see.  On our way back towards Hanga Roa, we stopped at a single restored moai called Huri A Urenga.  We intended to stop there first but couldn’t find it — it’s hidden behind a treeline and there is only a small entrance in the stone wall lining the street to get into there.  It’s on a large platform that you can walk all the way around.

After lunch, we went back to the east end of the island to see Tongariki again while the sun was on the other side of the moai.  It was definitely a different experience that I would recommend.  At this time of day you can see a lot more detail on the moai themselves, both carvings and color differences.  Heading back west we all stopped at Anakena this time.  It was one of my favorite spots because you can get extremely close to the moai.  We also walked along the coast a little farther to see a single knocked over moai that fell in such a way that it’s protected from the elements and you can make out much more detail than other statues.  A little bit further down the coast is a small cave we explored before heading back to the car.  There is actually another platform with additional moai if you walk another 10-15 minutes down the coast but we decided to save that for next time as it was very hot and sunny.  We ended the day with dinner and watching the sunset over a few platforms of moai near our hotel called Tahai.  We definitely weren’t the only people with this idea but it wasn’t overly crowded and ended up being a highlight of the trip.

Our last day on Easter Island was spent exploring the south western corner of the island.  We started off with a brief stop at the edge of an old volcano, called Rano Kao, looking down at the crater lake that has formed within.  Farther down the same road we arrived at Orongo, a stone village consisting of over 50 restored oval houses.  Based on the lack of resources on the edge of a volcano, it’s not believed to have been a residential area.  There are many carvings around the village that point to it being central to a ‘birdman’ cult that had rituals and annual contests there.  The views all around are great and you can really feel how isolated you are on the island from up there.

The next stop was a bit hard to find, both from the road and even from the parking lot.  There was a small shop selling souvenirs that led us in the right direction.  After walking a couple blocks through an empty field with benches that looks like it’s ready for large groups, we get to the coast and down a winding staircase to Ana Kai Tangata, a series of cave paintings, nearly all of the birdman figure.  The ceiling of the cave has been starting to collapse in recent years so you can’t get too far into the cave and there are only about a half dozen visible paintings remaining.  The ocean views from the cave and staircase are a bonus.

Next, we drove east down the main road to find a platform of knocked down moai that we had driven past a couple times but couldn’t find the entrance.  Turns out the entrance is a little ways down the road so it wasn’t obvious.  Turning in at the sign that says Viahu and driving over rough road and grass you come to a pseudo parking lot next to a farmhouse.  It felt like someone’s backyard, and it probably was, but it was the only way to the moai so it had to be the right place.  Here there are eight moai and a half dozen topknots, some of which had rolled pretty far from the platform.  There is also a large circle of stones in front, thought to be used for ceremonies that kids threw to honor their parents.  A nice surprise at this stop is an expansive black volcanic coast on the back-side of the platform.  We had a lot of fun exploring the area, watching the waves crash along the coast, and jumping over tiny streams running throughout the rocks.

Our last stop was at one of the more well known places called Vinapu.  It consists of two platforms that each have a few knocked over moai and topknots nearby.  While it sounds repetitive and may get old, we actually loved finding new moai to explore.  They were each unique and conjured up feelings of mystery and made you imagine being in the shoes of the rapa nui people.  What made this location special was that the platforms were the best preserved on the island and the stones were aligned nearly perfectly, similar to other ruins in South America.  There were also several moai heads lying in the grass face up so you can get extremely close.  There is also a unique statue here which was thought to be two-headed and completely different from the moai.  Nowadays it looks like a short pole with barely visible hands carved into the sides.

That was it for Easter Island.  We had an amazing time and it ranks as one of our favorite trips ever.  The isolation, lack of tourists, accessibility of the moai, mystic of its past all made for a one-of-a-kind experience.  You really feel as if you can ignore/avoid the world’s problems out there.  One thing I didn’t mention, mostly because I didn’t keep track of the specific places, is the food.  We were spoiled with delicious food at every meal and didn’t really have to wait anywhere even with our large group.  Lastly, I can’t recommend the book we used highly enough.  If you plan on visiting the island, it’s a must-have.

Our flight from Easter Island left after midnight, bounced through Santiago, and finally landed in Lima, Peru.  We stayed at a hotel in the Miraflores area of the city.  It was Christmas day so most things were closed.  We did lunch at the hotel, went for a swim, relaxed, and had dinner at a Swiss/Peruvian restaurant a few blocks away.

The next morning my father-in-law went to visit the neighborhood he stayed in 30 years ago while Lydia and I went to ruins in the middle of Miraflores called Huaca Pucllana.  Most of the ruins were just unrecognizable piles of bricks but the restored section is very impressive.  It feels very out of place because it’s surrounded by the hustling and bustling city.  We didn’t get to tour the restored area since you have to wait for a guided tour which was 20 minutes away and we had to head to the airport.

The flight to Cuzco/Cusco was uneventful but upon arrival our driver was not waiting for us as expected.  After about 15 minutes he showed up while I was calling the hotel from a military officer’s cell phone.  Most people that visit Machu Picchu stay in Cusco but we decided against it because we didn’t know how the altitude would affect us and the kids.  Cusco is at a much higher elevation than Machu Picchu and you can’t drive directly to the closest city, so we stayed at a city in between the two, both in distance and elevation, called Ollantaytambo for three nights.

Ollantaytambo ended up being another highlight of the trip.  We had no idea what to expect and had no idea it’s the last living Incan city.  It is all cobblestone streets and walled pedestian alleys off of the main road through town.  It’s a relatively small city in a valley surrounded by ruins.  The city is named after the main ruins on one side and there are less preserved and more sporadic Pinkuylluna ruins on the other.  The later are accessible for free off of an alley next to the guesthouse we stayed at.  The stairs are quite steep and rickety so Lydia wanted to turn back before we reached the first ruin.  My sister-in-law continued on and Jaime and her revisited them on a different day too.

Most of us had wanted to visit the Ollantaytambo ruins the next day but everyone backed out when we were told the price is $36 per person (a couple days later I found out that it was a weeklong pass for over a dozen locations and there was a one-day pass we could have all gotten for half the price).  I was the only one that continued and had a great time spending about two hours wandering around the site.  The altitude was definitely affecting me a bit and I almost gave up about half way up the main staircase.  I am very glad that I didn’t though.  The ruins were an expansive maze and the stonework was incredible to see, not to mention the views of the city and valleys.

Our third day there was our day trip to Machu Picchu.  We got up early and walked down to the train station.  It’s a much longer walk than it appears and I would recommend taking a motorized taxi for a few dollars instead.  The train ride was very scenic with beautiful views all around us.  It was about an hour and a half until we arrived in Aguas Calientes, the city closest to the ruins.  We met our guide there and he walked us through the large flea market of shops that crowd the area, crossed a foot bridge, and got in line for the final bus to Machu Picchu.  After a lot of switchbacks up the side of the mountain we caught a quick glimpse of the ruins before they disappeared from view until we walked in a few minutes later.

The guide spoke with a fairly thick accent and I often stayed a few steps behind to snap pictures so I missed a lot of the stories.  The ruins spoke for themselves though.  As many pictures that I’ve seen of the place, none of them prepared me for how massive and impressive the site is.  We spent a full two hours hiking around and didn’t even cover it all.  Every few feet I’d look around for a different stunning view.  We read and were told that you need parkas/umbrellas because the fog rolls in quickly and it rains a lot.  For us, it stayed perfectly clear the entire time.  It was an amazing thing to see.  We stopped at a restaurant just outside the entrance to cool down and have a quick lunch before waiting in a very long line for the bus back into town.  Once in town, we stopped for a drink and did some shopping before catching the train back to Ollantaytambo.  The train ride back was…interesting…  The attendants in each car turned into fashion models changing outfits and trying to sell anything they could.  The icing on the cake was a story about a local ritual and someone coming out in a clown costume with a dog face and danced around for 20 minutes.

On our final day in Peru I had asked the driver to make a few stops on the way back to Cusco.  It turns out that my overpriced ticket to the Ollantaytambo ruins got me in to all of the available stops which was a nice surprise.  The first place was Pisac which I hadn’t heard of previously but it was very popular.  So popular in fact that it took us nearly 45 minutes to drive up the mountain to the entrance and I ended up walking the last few blocks because the traffic was so bad.  The ruins were along the far side of the mountain and there were dozens of well-maintained terraces leading down from them.  I actually saw everything I needed to without reaching the entrance.  I started back towards the car when I ran into Jaime and everyone else.  They had finally found a parking spot so we stayed another few minutes looking around.

Next we went off in search of the famous Cusco walls.  The driver mistook my pointing on a map and instead took us to Qinqu.  Luckily my pass covered this site so I strolled through with Lydia quickly.  It was just the remnants of a quarry with one ruined building with a gorgeous view of Cusco down below.  Afterward, we headed towards the walls located at Saksaywaman.  Unfortunately it started raining so again only Lydia and I ventured inside for a few minutes.  We didn’t make it as far as the most famous part of the old city walls but we still got to see quite a lot of incredible stonework with seemingly impossible alignment.  We spent a little bit of time driving around Cusco itself.  It was a busy time of day so we didn’t actually stop anywhere.  We arrived at the airport early which ended up being a good thing because they couldn’t find half of our connecting flights.

The journey home was a little rough.  The flight from Lima had very bad turbulence and upon arrival in Miami we discovered that we lost Lydia’s passport.  We had shown it to the gate agent right before entering the gangway in Lima and we had the plane searched without luck.  After waiting for an hour for the plane search we were handed off to an immigration officer that admitted the rest of us then directed us to wait against a wall some more.  A few minutes later we were brought into a room with about 40 others that had no windows.  We thought we’d be stuck there a while and just when we started to settle in they called us up.  A few questions later and we were released into Miami!

We had a great year of traveling in 2015.  Every other year we attend both Jaime’s extended family reunion and visit my aunt and uncle in Maine so this year will be a little more low-key.  We do have one new country coming up next month though — Northern Ireland!

Alaskan Cruise

Posted by Ron on October 22nd, 2015 filed in Travel
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This trip began like so many of our trips do lately — with a deal I saw in a newsletter.  In this case, it was $599 for a 7 night cruise, including unlimited alcohol and both kids were free.  We had been planning to do an Alaskan cruise for a while and were trying to find a smaller ship but they were so much more expensive.  When this deal came up, we quickly booked the only week we both had available and invited both sides of the family to join us.  My family already had other plans but Jaime’s parents and sister were able to join us.

We arrived in Seattle the night before the cruise (we always do this to avoid any potential flight delay issues).  We didn’t do anything exciting, just a quick visit to Pike Place and dinner at Italian Family Pizza.

The first day and a half of the cruise were at sea where we partook in various onboard activities and plenty of free alcohol.  I/we have gone on several Caribbean cruises in the past and the biggest difference was the other passengers.  I usually feel a little out of place on Caribbean cruises because I am always looking for different cultures, adventure, and new experiences while the ship is full of people looking to party and sunbathe.  Alaskan cruises, or at least ours, are much more low-key.  The pools were not heated so they were barely used (with the average temperature in the low 60s), the chairs were all empty, and you could get in an empty hot tub at any time.  It was quite refreshing.


Our first port of call was Juneau, the capital.  Jaime had found a great blog post that said to avoid most shore excursions offered by the cruise line because, in contrast with various Caribbean countries, Alaskan tour companies were all following the same rules and regulations regardless of where they are booked.

We had decided to visit the Mendenhall Glacier followed by the Mount Roberts Tram.  A tour package purchased in the tram station was about $10 less per person onshore, so it was definitely worth waiting.  The bus ride to the glacier was uneventful and the tourist center was right along the water so you could see everything almost immediately.  The main walking paths were close to a river which used to be part of the glacier a couple decades ago.  There is also a large waterfall along the cliffs to the right of the glacier.  Lydia was very excited about the waterfall so we hiked 20 minutes to reach it.  Unfortunately for her, she passed out somewhere along the hike and missed getting up close and personal.  She woke up right when we finished the return hike and wasn’t happy.  I showed her pictures of her sleeping at the base of the waterfall and she couldn’t believe it.

Afterward, we took the tram ride up Mount Roberts.  There isn’t much to see at the top other than the views down to the city.  There was a funny green-screen photo op that we did (though the cameraman never sent me the pictures via email that I paid extra for!).  Other than that, there’s a rescued bald eagle on display, a viewing platform, and a small museum that we skipped.


This next stop is a tiny town known for a gold rush basecamp and the gateway to the Yukon.  This time around we pre-purchased the tickets for the White Pass Railway as our sources said the prices were about the same on shore.  The railroad was thought to be impossible to build and was an engineering feat of the ages.  It skirts along mountain sides and through a couple tunnels to bring people to the goldfields and, at the time, to the interior of the Yukon.  Now, the railroad is only used for tourists as it’s a very scenic and relaxing trip.

When we returned to town a few hours later, we wandered around the main drag, did a little shopping, and grabbed lunch in one of the few places that had space available.  The cruise ship guests definitely overran most of the city.  There are between 400 and 800 residents depending on season and just our cruise ship (one of 2-3 ships at each port) added over 2,500 for the day.

Glacier Bay

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I saw Glacier Bay on the itinerary.  I had just assumed that it was part of the inner passage on the way back.  After looking up the other ships we crossed paths with though, we realized how special we were to have it as part of the cruise.  Apparently the ship has to pay additional fees to the park service so a lot of ships take a different route.

We saw at least a dozen glaciers, including a couple of rare ones that had just opened up due to too much loose ice over the summer.  At one point, we got within a football field or two to a massive glacier and the ship spun completely around many times to make sure everyone got an amazing view.  Jaime had also just discovered the unmarked route to the bow of the ship (that is normally locked when the boat is moving) which made it an extra special affair.  Overall, it was an amazing experience.  If you take an Alaskan cruise, be sure it includes Glacier Bay.

That evening we discovered how easy it was to utilize Splash Academy for Lydia.  Our initial thought that it was specific drop-off times for short events, but it’s very flexible and Lydia loved going for an hour here and there to play with other kids for the rest of the trip.  Wish we had tried it earlier!


For the next stop, we knew early on that we wanted to take a tour in a floatplane.  The prices were a bit steep on the boat — $250-280 or so a person and since I love to haggle we decided to roll the dice onshore.  After some fairly aggressive haggling and back-and-forth, I got it down to $200 a person and free kids.  After a quick van ride we arrived at the airport.  Lydia started laughing hysterically and kept saying “the plane is in the water like a boat!!!”.

The planes were 6-seaters so we had the plane to ourselves.  The main attraction for the area is the Misty Fjords National Monument and it was incredible to see it all from the air.  The flight was about an hour and a half total and it seemed like we were in a sweeping nature movie the entire time.  We even landed in the middle of a fjord and got to stand on the pontoon landing gear to soak it all up.  A great experience that was totally worth the price.

Afterward, we walked around the city a bit.  Ketchikan looked like what I expected an Alaskan city to look like.  Various colored houses and a fishing village vibe.  There is also a great old part of town with a series of houses built atop a boardwalk that overhangs a river.  It was infamous for having a lot of brothels but today it’s all shopping and preserved houses.


Our last port of call was Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, which is about half way between Seattle and Vancouver.  The port times were 6pm to midnight which isn’t good when traveling with kids.  We decided to just take a bus into town and wander around to find dinner.  We first visited Chinatown, the oldest in Canada and second oldest in North America behind San Francisco.  We all got some bubble tea and continued walking around.  We ended up at a popular pizza place called Famoso.  The wait was quoted at 30 minutes but ended up being around an hour.  We were so glad we waited though because it was some of the best pizza we’ve ever had.


The ship returned on a Sunday morning and since the next day was Labor Day, we decided to spend the extra time in Seattle.  After departing the ship and saying our goodbyes to Jaime’s family, we were off to check into our hotel.  We started back at Pike Place then went down the shore a bit to the Great Wheel as Lydia is obsessed with ferris wheels.  We then walked all the way to the Space Needle and went to the beautiful Chihuly Garden and Glass next door; both recommended.  For dinner we went with a local’s suggestion of Serious Pie which was good but after being spoiled by Famoso the day before it didn’t seem as great as it probably was.

That’s it for this trip!  Next up will be Bangkok in November without the kids!

Maine, Boston, and Toronto

Posted by Ron on July 19th, 2015 filed in Travel
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While these cities could be done on the same trip, and it sounds like something we’d normally do, they were actually separate trips.  Yes, I’m playing catch-up on smaller trips again!


We went to Maine to visit relatives over Labor Day last year.  We love Maine and try to make it out there every two years.

We went to the Blue Hill Fair and Acadia National Park, which occurs nearly every time we visit and spent some time in Bar Harbor.  We also took a short road trip to Bangor to stop by Stephen King’s house.  Bangor was surprisingly empty for a weekend so there wasn’t much else going on there.

The highlight of the trip was the three of us crammed into a two-person plane for a 30 minute flight over Acadia.  Jaime was slightly terrified when we drove up and saw how small the planes were but Lydia was excited enough for all of us so we couldn’t back out.  The flight was quite a thrill to experience.  Lydia had to wear a helmet with a mic to the aviation towers.  This was unexpectedly hilarious as the pilot would report our coordinates and Lydia would follow it with “BIRDIE!”.



Lydia and I tagged along on one of Jaime’s work trips to Boston.  It was a very strange welcome…  We had to switch subway lines twice to get into town and Boston’s train lines are all completely different so it was hard to find the right train as they weren’t connected and looked like they were from different eras.  In the middle of it all, we had someone call us “rich, white, motherf’ers” just for paying the fare!

Once we got to the tourist areas though it was fine.  We did all the typical tourist things — Paul Revere’s House, Boston Commons (including the new Edgar Allan Poe statue), Faneuil Hall, and Quincy Market.  That day we also wandered the old North End, visited some cemeteries, and got in a random long line which turned out to be for amazing cannolis at Mike’s Pastry.  Over the next two days we took a great Duck Tour, a highlight for Lydia, went to the top of Prudential Tower, and spent some time at the Boston Children’s Museum.



Most recently we spent a long weekend in Toronto.  On the way to Montreal last year over the 4th of July the Canadian border patrol pointed out that we had left the US the year before for Calgary, so we decided to continue the trend and go to Canada for another 4th of July.

The trip there looks to be 8 hours on paper but with traffic and kids it was closer to 10.  We arrived at 2am and crashed immediately.

The next morning we got up and drove another 90 minutes to Niagra Falls.  It was a bit crazy and full of tourists so we headed straight to the pier to take a boat trip to the Falls via Hornblower (formerly Maid of the Mist).  I haven’t done this trip in probably 15-20 years, so it was a trip down memory lane.  Lydia loved it until we got closer to the falls and it was “raining in the boat”.  We had a quick lunch in town and then went on the Skywheel (Lydia is obsessed with ferris wheels) for some great views.  Afterward we headed back to Toronto for dinner at Pickle Barrel.

The next morning started off with a walk to St. Lawrence’s Market for the famous peameal bacon sandwiches from Carousel Bakery.  We then continued the walk east to visit the Distillery Historic District.  It’s a relatively small area with pedestrian-only brick roads.  It was very well preserved, though with modern shops, and felt like I was back in time.  We then ventured to the north side of town to Casa Loma.  After a long walk and up a large flight of stairs, we ran into a very long line and decided to turn back after snapping some pictures of the outside.

Next we went to the famous Caplansky’s Deli for lunch.  Our plans afterward were to take the subway back to the hotel but there was a very hip street (Augusta) that we just couldn’t walk past.  We ended up walking down that street for a couple miles.  It turned out that we wandered into the newly gentrified Kensington neighborhood.  It was full of hip shops, restaurants, and street carts.  It felt like a totally different world where everyone was selling their goods in a shop that could disappear tomorrow.  Our favorite stop was Wanda’s Pie in the Sky where we had an amazing slice of pie and contemplated how to bring an entire pie home.  After a quick stop at the hotel we went to Pizzeria Libretto off West Queen Street for dinner followed by a worthy long line at Bang Bang Ice Cream for dessert.

On our last morning we went to the top of the CN Tower.  Literally the top too!  They have an add-on ticket to the much smaller ‘skypod’ that’s 33 stories higher than the observation deck.  Totally worth it if you get there early enough to avoid the lines.  The trip back was mostly uneventful.  We did a quick detour to Hell, Michigan which is a quirky little town with basically two businesses.  Probably not worth a going there by itself but if it’s not too far out of the way, it was a good way to break up the trip a bit.


We have also spent separate weekends in Branson (family reunion), Memphis (Thanksgiving), St. Louis (Easter), and Milwaukee as well as camped a couple of times so far this year.

Up next will be an Alaskan cruise next month followed by Thanksgiving in Bangkok.


Posted by Ron on July 27th, 2014 filed in Travel
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Shortly after our Iceland trip, we bought an Aliner camper and have taken it out twice since then.  Unfortunately for the blog, camping trips typically do not have enough activities for a write-up.  With that, I’m pleased to announce that Jaime and I took a real trip a few weeks ago!  My sister had time off work, so she offered to watch our daughter, which of course meant that we had to leave the country.  For a long weekend, it didn’t make too much sense to go very far, so we narrowed it down to Canada or Central America and the flights ended up being the best timing and cost for Montreal.

We flew in late on a Thursday evening and immediately crashed at Hotel 10 in the Latin Quarter.  We chose the location because it was in the middle of the three neighborhoods we intended to visit and it was relatively close to public transportation.

Friday morning we hit the ground running and walked around the Plateau neighborhood with a breakfast stop at a great diner named Beauty’s.  Plateau is a lively area with two main roads that crisscross the neighborhood full of shops, restaurants, and bars.  The most unique thing is that nearly all open walls are covered with very large, ornate, and detailed graffiti.  We then headed west to Mount Royal, a large park on a small mountain next to downtown.  I foolishly thought we could walk across the whole thing in order to get to St. Joseph’s Oratory.  After about 20 minutes of hiking we looked at the GPS on our phones and we were only about a fifth of the way, so we decided to turn back and walk around the mountain (assuming flat walking would be easier).  After a couple of hills we decided to take a cab.  Good thing too because it was a roller coaster of a cab ride; we never would have made it!

We had the cab take us to the top parking lot of St. Joseph’s Oratory, not realizing that we bypassed most of the usual tour.  Regardless, the oratory was stunning and we did the full tour in reverse.  The other notable things are the elaborate candle tributes on the first level, escalators everywhere (first ones we’ve seen in a church), and a glass-enclosed heart of a Brother involved with the church.  There are also some great views of the area from a terrace outside one of the levels.  After our self-guided tour was over, we took a cab across town to the place that invented poutine, La Banquise.  While we both don’t fully understand the poutine phenomenon, I must say it was very tasty!  We walked off some of it on the way back to the hotel to take a nap.  For dinner we took the metro downtown to a Portuguese restaurant that was recommended to me, Ferreira Cafe.  We quickly learned that “cafe” can mean anything in Montreal — from an actual cafe, to a full service restaurant, to a night club.  We walked back on the busy St. Catherine’s Street and ran into the popular International Jazz Festival (“jazz” is another loose term in Montreal), where we enjoyed a few performances.

Saturday morning, we tackled the bus system in order to try out the famous original St. Viateur Bagel shop in the Mile End neighborhood.  I had read about lines there but when we arrived, we were the only people around.  The original location is just a pickup place, so we grabbed a couple bagels and ate on a nearby bench.  They were so tasty, we decided we had to try the nearly-as-famous Fairmount Bagel a few blocks away to compare.  There was definitely more variety and we ended up liking each place for different reasons.  After breakfast we went to Jean-Talon Market, one of the oldest public markets in Montreal.  We thoroughly enjoyed wandering around and purchased some sweets for the rest of the trip.  We then took the metro to Old Montreal and went straight to the Old Port to catch an extended boat cruise.  The cruise was very relaxing and a great way to break up the day.  Back in port, we spent the remainder of the afternoon strolling around Old Montreal, mainly along St. Paul Street and in the square around Notre-Dame Basilica (which was unfortunately closed for a wedding).  We also enjoyed an impromptu performance on a public piano outside the Museum of Archaeology and History.  For dinner, the hotel recommended nearby Restaurant Laloux, which served delicious French food.

The morning of our final day in Montreal, we realized that it’s not really a breakfast-eating city.  There were few breakfast/brunch locations and the streets were nearly empty before around 10am.  We ended up going to Eggspectation with seemingly every other tourist in town.  It was pretty standard fare and hit the spot.  After breakfast, we made a quick stop back at Fairmount Bagel to pick up some to bring home before heading over to Olympic Park.  We spent a couple hours at Olympic Park which was mostly converted to a massive diverse Biodome.  Also at the site is the tallest inclined tower in the world where we took in the sweeping views of the city.  Our final stop was the must-go Schwartz’s Deli, famous for smoked meat.  We enjoyed the experience even though we got shamed for not eating meat (“meat” means beef in Montreal).

So with only two and a half days in Montreal, I think we covered all of the highlights and had a great time.  It’s definitely a nice walkable city that has a more European feel than you’ll find elsewhere in this hemisphere.  We’ll have to go back with the whole family in a few years.  One important tip: the weekend metro pass includes the bus to the airport, which separately costs just about as much as the weekend pass, so it’s a real steal of a deal.


Posted by Ron on February 17th, 2014 filed in Travel
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So Jaime and I were discussing a few months ago how we’d only gone to Canada outside of the US in 2013 and that needed to change.  As I’ve mentioned before, we are both subscribed to a lot of travel newsletters and just as we were thinking about where to go we get the weekly Travelzoo deals and see an insanely cheap deal to Iceland for three nights through Gate 1 Travel and couldn’t pass it up!

Our flight left at 3pm on Thursday, February 6th and arrived at 9am on Friday in Iceland.  Our plan was to all get some sleep on the way over, but Lydia decided against that idea.  The daylight this time of year is from 10am-5pm, so we picked up the rental car in the pitch black and were told “if there are any dents, just take a picture and email us”.  We get to the Best Western Hotel Reykjavik and while the lobby was packed, they were able to get us a room right away and we all crashed for a few hours.

We spent the remainder of the day wandering around the capitol.  We walked along the coast taking in the beautiful scenery and had a quick warm-up stop inside the unique Harpa concert hall.  It’s a building made out of tons of cubes that light up and dance with different colors in the evening.  We then cut up through the old city center and found a great lunch place full of locals.  It was our first and only traditional Icelandic meal.  We didn’t realize it at the time but our schedule was very demanding and none of the recommended restaurants seemed especially family friendly so we did a lot of take-out or diner-type food.  On the walk back to the hotel, we stopped at the imposing Hallgrimskirkja (church).  It’s only eight stories high but it towers over the city and offers amazing views from the top.  We stopped back at the hotel and booked a whale watching tour for Saturday and then picked up pizza from Gamla Smiðjan for dinner.  We attempted to sleep at around 10pm, but we ended up until 3 or 4am since Lydia was still on Chicago time.

Thankfully, the whale watching tour was at 1pm, so we were able to sleep in.  We got picked up from the hotel and then switched buses to leave out of a different port 45 minutes away where whales had been seen the day before.  Good thing we did because we ended up seeing five orca (killer) whales — four female and one male!  It did take a while to find them and we weren’t very optimistic until another boat spotted them and radioed our boat.  In all, it was about five and a half hours so we only had about an hour to find dinner and buy some wool for the Northern Lights tour that was part of the Gate 1 Travel package.  I bought some wool gear for the cold night ahead at the best named place ever — Woolcano, and then I drove around town like a maniac looking for fast food with parking nearby and finally end up at a deli that sold delicious paninis.  I made it back to the hotel just as the bus was loading up.

Unfortunately, the time zone change finally caught up to Lydia and she was um, expressing her displeasure, on a bus full of 80 people!  It was on and off on the drive out to find a dark, clear place but after a quick nap at our second stop she was upset most of the way home.  That stressful situation aside, we did get to see some amazing Northern Lights!  What you don’t know before seeing them is that you really need to hunt for them.  They aren’t everywhere and they aren’t always that clear.  Your camera picks up a lot more color and definition than your eyes do.  We did have an embarrassing moment where we (read: I) couldn’t figure out how to get our fancy Canon to take pictures at night!  Jaime luckily found someone with a similar camera that was able to change a few settings and give us lots of pointers on how to capture the lights.  They are very hard to keep in focus, but it was still a great experience.  On the way to a second location, we instead stopped when the lights started popping up behind the clouds like lightning!  It was quite a surreal experience.

Our last full day was spent driving all over the place.  We started off following the traditional Golden Triangle route to Thingvellir National Park where Iceland was founded and you can walk between still-very-slowing-moving tectonic plates.  Next we were off to a geothermal area called Geysir (where the word geyser comes from).  We were expecting a town, but it was more of a tourist trap visitor center next to the hot springs.  There were a lot of smoking holes in the ground with minor activity and one active geyser which erupts every 3-5 minutes.  After a quick lunch there, we continued to the last stop on the Golden Triangle — Gulfoss.  It’s the most visited waterfall in Iceland (or so the maps say), but it’s very underwhelming when you get there.  You can see nothing and the ground is flat all around you.  After walking down a path for a short distance, you finally get to see the wide, two-tiered waterfall.  It was a beautiful sight to see but the freezing wind kept our visit pretty short.

Instead of following the route back to Reykjavik from there we decided to drive down to the South Coast area to see some more sights.  Originally we had planned a full day for the southern area but the whale watching tour is only at 1pm during the winter so we shuffled things around a bit.  With the cold weather and short days, it worked out for the best anyway.  Our first stop was Seljalandsfoss, a high and wide waterfall that has a path where you can walk behind it!  Unfortunately, it was very icy so I stayed back with Lydia while Jaime attempted the frozen stair climb.  She made it all the way up the stairs and then the path deteriorated quickly so she turned back.  By the time she made it down the iced-over stairs she couldn’t feel her hands!  We’ll have to revisit here in the summer…  Our next sight was the volcano that tried to ruin our honeymoon in 2010, Eyjafjallajokull.  There wasn’t much to see as it’s tucked into the ongoing mountain range but we knew where it was thanks to a visitor center set up to commemorate the event (except that they wanted $7.50 to walk inside the tiny shack so we opted out).  Our last stop on the South Coast was Skogafoss, another famous waterfall that had a nice rainbow in the mist as the water tumbled into a stream surrounded by black sand.

After that, we headed back to Reykjavik and ate dinner at an American-style diner (but not the official “American Style” restaurant).  One word of warning — the food is insanely expensive all over Iceland.  For example, a simple chicken sandwich was $21, and that’s the norm!  This fact is another reason we didn’t eat out too much.  After dinner, it was dark out so we decided to go hunting for more Northern Lights!  Rather than head out to the middle of nowhere again, I had read about a lighthouse on the coast that had good views so we went there.  Right away we could see some and after having the camera almost blown over a couple times, we spent most of the time in the car enjoying the show.

We slept in on our last day in Iceland too.  After a quick breakfast at the hotel we drove down to the Blue Lagoon.  It’s a total tourist trap with high prices though I’d still say it’s a must-see.  It’s a huge, steamy lagoon that was created by the runoff water from a nearby factory.  It’s much more glamorous than it sounds, trust me.  After soaking in the geothermal waters for about 90 minutes, we showered, packed up, and caught our flights back home!  The flights were uneventful though upon returning home we found that Lydia had taken an Icelandic souvenir — the hotel remote control (which is now on another flight back)!

2013 Round-up

Posted by Ron on January 8th, 2014 filed in Travel
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While we haven’t done any major trips since Banff in July, we have gotten out a town several times that we didn’t get a chance to write about.

In the interest of keeping this blog up-to-date with all our trips, I thought I’d mention each one with a quick summary.

Washington DC

Jaime had a lot of traveling to do for work in the late summer and throughout the Fall.  In late July, both Lydia and I tagged along on a trip to DC.  We got to hang out with Jaime’s law school friend Melissa and her family and while Jaime was working, Lydia and I wandered around the National Mall.  It was extremely hot so we ducked into several lesser known museums just to keep cool!  The highlight was being able to see the rare corpse flower in person, although it didn’t bloom until we were on the flight home.

Traverse City

Over Labor Day weekend we went camping with some friends in Empire, MI, which is in between Traverse City and Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park.  We spent a day in each location.  Traverse City is a very cute, albeit touristy, city where you just stroll around.  We also drove up a nearby peninsula and did a winery tour.  Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park has a few scenic overlooks but the highlight is the dunes themselves.  They are very high and very steep and descend directly into Lake Michigan.  There were people getting dropped off in boats at the bottom and spending several hours climbing to the top!

California Coast

In late September I went to a conference in LA, but beforehand I attended a vow renewal for some friends in Santa Cruz outside of San Francisco.  My sister and brother-in-law picked me up in SF and we spent a few hours wandering around town and touring a trolley museum.  After the vow renewal, I decided to rent a car and do the scenic drive down the coast to LA.  Google Maps said it would be about 9.5 hours but with all my scenic detours and photo op stops, it ended up being over 13 hours!  Quite a long day, but it was very nice.  The conference was in the Disneyland Hotel which was insanely luxurious and I was able to catch up with some former coworkers over dinner each night.

Salt Lake City

In late October, I was able to meet up with Jaime in SLC in the middle of a 6-city-hopping work trip.  Lydia spent a few nights with my sister which they both thoroughly enjoyed.  Each day while Jaime was working, I drove up into the mountains to go hiking and take pictures.  It was quite surreal to drive up the mountains where it was constantly snowing.  While mostly fun, I did nearly get stuck on a snowy trail and realized that I need hiking boots and a pole next time I try that!  With Jaime, we visited Temple Square and ate at a great restaurant named Eva.  We also drove about 90 minutes west of SLC to the Bonneville Salt Flats where they do a lot of racing.  By far the most unique experience was soaking for an hour in a natural geothermal crater in the middle of nowhere.

North Woods

In mid-November, we had planned for a long weekend in the North Woods of Wisconsin with my immediate family.  Unfortunately Jaime and my sister couldn’t make it, so it was just my mom, Lydia, and myself.  We still had a great time though!  It was a rather chilly weekend so we didn’t do much outdoors.  We drove up to Lake Superior and back through the Upper Peninsula of Michigan with a quick stop in an Indian Reservation.  Other than that we relaxed in the unique treehouse-style resort with a toasty fireplace!

New Orleans

Last, but certainly not least, we spent a few days in New Orleans before driving up to Memphis for Christmas.  We flew in on Saturday morning and while Lydia took a nap I wandered around the French Quarter solo and picked up some famous muffulettas from Central Grocery for us.  After meeting up with Jaime’s family, we wandered around the French Quarter and went to the Camelia Grill for dinner.  It was raining the entire second day so we spent most of the day indoors at the extensive World War II Museum.  We had a great lunch at Luke restaurant and cabbed it over to the famous Cafe du Monde for beignets.  On the walk back to the hotel in the rain, we finally gave in and bought some touristy ponchos and had a quick dinner at Huck Finn’s Cafe.  On our last full day, Jaime and I went to the nearby Saint Louis Cemetery Number One before meeting up with everyone at Tujague’s for a traditional New Orleans lunch.  After some more wandering around the French Quarter, we went to the historic Arnaud’s for dinner.  Jaime’s mom kindly took Lydia back to the hotel while the rest of us went on a ghost walking tour.  Once the tour was over, Jaime and I went to Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, “the oldest bar in the US”, and thoroughly enjoyed the candlelit piano playing to end the night.  On our final morning, we went to Mothers for breakfast and then drove up to Memphis for Christmas.

Banff National Park

Posted by Ron on July 17th, 2013 filed in Travel
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We have done a couple of road trips since our last post about Istanbul over Thanksgiving, but nothing to really write about.  That all changed when work announced that we would have Friday, July 5th off.  Upon hearing the news, I immediately started chatting with Jaime about going out of town for the long weekend.  I suggested a few destinations within driving distance and Jaime responded simply “Banff”.  We have often come across pictures of the area and were determined to go at some point, so why not now?  A few years ago we went to a Buddhist country for Christmas and a Muslim country for New Years, so it makes perfect sense that we’d flee to Canada during America’s Independence Day!

Within a couple hours, we had everything booked.  We would depart only a couple weeks later, so we didn’t have much time to plan.  I had done some research of the must-see sites but the best find was the GyPSy Guide Android apps.  They were perfect because they solved a couple problems — showing us the sights around town and through the parks, but more importantly they used your phone’s GPS without a data plan so we didn’t need any maps or to pay much attention to the signage.

We flew into Calgary, Alberta on the morning of Thursday the 4th and rented a car at the airport.  It’s about a 2 hour drive up to Banff northwest from there, which was pretty uneventful.  One thing Jaime noticed was that Canadian highways didn’t have gas stations and/or fast food at every exit.  We had hoped to pick up food on the way but didn’t want to get too far off the highway to find it so we ended up waiting until arriving in Canmore.  It’s a small town a little bit away from Banff that I had recommended to me by a few people.  After a delicious lunch at The Grizzly Paw Brewing Company, we snapped a few photos and got back on the road to Banff.

Crossing into Banff National Park (the town is inside the park, which interestingly means homeowners actually lease the land from the park system), you must pay a ~$20 fee at a gate right on the highway, without much warning.  I knew it was going to happen at some point, though it seemed like a strange spot to have the entrance gates.  I thought we’d have to pay every day, but we never left the national parks during our stay so we didn’t have to.  One spot had a sign that said you must have a valid pass, but there was no where to pay even if you wanted to!  One cool thing they have in Banff is animal overpasses on the highways.  There are fences running along the entire highway and every so often a bridge which you’d normally expect to be an intersecting road was there but it was all grass for animals to migrate over the highway without crossing the road — it was genius!

We arrived in Banff, the town, at around 2pm.  There is one main road through town, not so surprisingly named Banff Ave.  The first half of it is all hotels lining both sides of the road.  Then the second half is all shops and restaurants.  Luckily for us, our hotel, the Mount Royal Hotel was in the middle of the second section.  We loved being in the middle of the action!  There are a few extra blocks in each direction with more places to shop/eat in this area too.  Banff is your typical tourist town with old-timey photos, shirt shops, local swag, etc.  We didn’t do too much shopping — we did have some great dinners and ice cream though!

We decided that we should head back to Calgary Sunday morning to give us a buffer before our flight since the customs agent warned us that the recent flooding may cause extra traffic on the roads.  This only gave us 2.5 days in Banff so there was no time to waste — we dropped off our bags in the room and headed out to start seeing the sights!  Our first stop was the famous Banff Springs Hotel.  It’s a massive hotel that was built in the park’s early days to draw in tourists via train.  The hotel is stunning from all angles, and from various high points we viewed it at around town throughout our trip.  It’s quite expensive to stay there and they seem to have a nice conference center built in now too for business trips.  We just drove around it and then went off to Lake Minnewanka.

The lake is gorgeous and surrounded by mountains, which is a theme for nearly all lakes we’d see over the next couple days.  The map showed a trail to a canyon so off we went!  We christened a backpack carrier that I got for Christmas too.  Lydia loved it!  She almost didn’t want to get out at the end of our hike.  At the canyon a strange man that showed up out of nowhere took a picture of us and we turned back.  It was a great introduction to the Banff area without ruining the sights we’d see the following day.

Our last big stop of the day was a trip up Sulphur Mountain in a gondola!  The tickets were pretty expensive (~$35 each) but I couldn’t pass up the views.  There were mountains in every direction as far as you could see.  The town looked tiny below and you could see the Banff Springs Hotel on the way up too.  At the top there’s just a small cafe and then a trail that takes you down a little bit and back up the peak of a neighboring mountain.  We went down to the middle section and turned back to the top of Sulphur Mountain.  While walking around the building at the top we ran into a family of wild mountain goats!  After that excitement (and lots of pictures of baby goats), we headed back down the mountain.  For some reason Banff didn’t have a lot of tourists over this weekend so we didn’t have to wait at all on either end of the trip.  They had huge roped off areas so you could tell it generally gets pretty busy.

Back at the hotel, we noticed a rooftop restaurant across the street and decided it was the perfect night for it, so we tried it out.  It was quite good though Lydia’s bedtime cut it a little shorter than we otherwise would have stayed.  While Lydia was going to sleep, Jaime ran out for some ice cream at a place on the street that was in the same building as our hotel.  It was so good that we ended up there every night of the trip!

The next day was the big journey into Banff National Park and Yoho National Park.  We had never heard of Yoho but it was part of the GyPSy Guide app we bought for this day’s activities and we enjoyed the extra scenery/sights.  The first stop was to the famous Lake Louise!  It was quite impressive and lived up to the hype.  The color of the lake is a glacial blue and directly on the opposite side is a beautiful mountain.  There are several trails that depart from the entrance to the lake and we opted for the one that followed the coastline of the lake.  It’s a nice easy path that starts to get a little more difficult near the backside of the lake.  After taking in all the views, we headed back and went on to the next stop.

We arrived at Moraine Lake a short time later and Lydia was passed out.  After attempting to nap with her for a bit, we decided to take turns going to the lake and if it was worthwhile to wait for Lydia to wake up.  After about 30 minutes (we had to park quite a ways away from the lake), Jaime returns wide-eyed and out of breath.  She says it’s somehow better than Lake Louise and we all must go back asap.  Lydia woke up shortly thereafter and we went back as a family.  The lake from ground level is about equal to Lake Louise and the path along the coast is a little more difficult, but where Moraine Lake shines is the climb up a rubble pile near the entrance.  Blink and you’ll miss the path so you may have to look for it.  Jaime had already done the climb so she stayed back and I took off down the trail with Lydia on my back.  After a relatively steep climb, you are awarded with the most stunning views you can imagine.  Ten distinct peaks surround the lake and the scene is just surreal.  I snapped so many pictures and took in the views for a while before joining Jaime for a quick snack from the cafe near the entrance.

The next stop on the app tour was the Spiral Tunnels.  Lydia was back asleep so Jaime just ran up and couldn’t see what all the fuss was about.  It was just a train tunnel into a mountain.  Surely a feat at some point in history but not impressive these days.  The busloads of other tourists waiting for a train to come through may think otherwise.  We then diverged from the tour for a bit to go down Icefields Parkway.

I had read and was recommended to drive down Icefields Parkway, known as the most beautiful drive in the world.  How could we say no?!  It’s the road a lot of tourists take all the way to Jasper (~3 hours) and spend a night but we didn’t have time for the full journey.  There was another park checkpoint and our pass from the previous day was still valid for an hour.  We asked the park ranger what there was to see within a short distance and she gave us a map and circled the highlights for us!  The main two attractions we stopped at were Crowfoot Glacier, which sadly is half melted away, and Peyto Lake where a glacier has receded long ago.  Quick tip: at Peyto Lake, the ranger advised us to go to the handicap parking lot to quickly walk out for the lake view.  We (read: I) didn’t go there though and we regretted it because the non-handicap route is a pretty steep and exhausting climb.

On the way back down Icefields Parkway to continue the tour, we came across about 30 cars pulled over to the side of the road.  Surely something must be going on so we pulled over and started asking questions.  Apparently there were a couple grizzly bears in the meadow just beyond a small hill.  Jaime took our new zoom lens and walked down to snap some great pictures!  It was a highlight of the trip and was totally unexpected.

Back on the main road, we continued the app tour into Yoho National Park.  The first stop there was a natural bridge.  It was a quick stop as one of the great things about these parks is that the main attractions are very close to the parking lots.  There were very few tourists at the Yoho stops which made us appreciate them a little more.  The natural bridge was formed by some white rapids pushing under the rock.  It was still at the water level so it’s not what I was picturing we’d see.  Next stop was Emerald Lake.  It’s mainly for kayaking so we just snapped a few pictures and went off to the last stop: Takakkaw Falls.  Jaime was jonesin’ for some waterfalls and Takakkaw delivered!  You could see the falls from the road and we geared up and hiked the trail all the way up to the falls.  The last 100 feet or so was extremely cold and wet from the falls’ mist.  Lydia was giggling the whole time and we snapped some great double rainbow pictures!  Back in Banff, we attempted to eat at Wild Bill’s but were turned away because for some reason their liquor license doesn’t allow kids??  We ended up picking up some pizza and eating it in the room while Lydia was falling asleep.

We started off our last full day in Banff by going to the breakfast buffet inside the Banff Springs Hotel.  The buffet was quite extensive (and quite expensive) but getting a mini tour of the hotel while finding the restaurant was well worth it.  It is full of large decorated empty rooms at every turn and the ambiance throughout is amazing.  Afterward, we followed a different app tour for sites in and around the Banff city area.  We had already done a couple of the stops the first night and had gotten familiar with the area so we didn’t follow the directions as strictly on this tour.  We had a several quick stops including Bow Falls, Cave and Basin (which we ended up skipping because Lydia was sleeping), Surprise Corner with incredible views of Banff Springs Hotel, the quick Hoodoos trail, and an overlook of Bow Valley from Mount Norquay.  We then took a longer hike at Johnston Canyon along a narrow metal catwalk to the Lower Falls where you can get very close and wet (again).  We then drove around the Vermilion Lakes just west of Banff before Jaime took a dip in the Upper Hot Springs to relax at the end of our great trip!

Dinner was also eventful on our last night.  We went to a Mexican place but Lydia was well past her bedtime and made it clear she wouldn’t make it through dinner so we asked for the food to go and I waited outside.  No exaggeration, we waited 45 solid minutes for two entrees!  We brought it back to the hotel and ate it there before retiring for the evening.

Our last morning we had a full breakfast in Banff and hit the road to Calgary.  We didn’t end up hitting any traffic but we also didn’t have as much time as we thought in Calgary.  We will have to go back and spend a little more time there.  In the 90 minutes or so we did have, we stumbled upon a hip pedestrian street lined with restaurants, shops, and the occasional food truck.  One thing that did make our experience a little more unique than normal was that Stampede was going on in Calgary.  It is a massive 10 day annual festival that draws tons of people to Calgary and everything we saw had a Stampede theme to it — be it drawings in windows, bails of hay, wooden plaques and gates.

That’s it for this trip!  All the pictures we took can be found at this link.  We had a great time and would love to go back in the winter to see more snow on the mountains and when Lydia is older to take advantage of kayaking in the lakes or boating in some white water rapids.  We are currently working out details of our next couple trips, so stay tuned!

Istanbul, Turkey

Posted by Ron on January 1st, 2013 filed in Travel
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So Jaime and I get a lot of travel newsletters on a regular basis.  We see a lot of great deals and creative itineraries, but never have the availability as the best deals are last minute.  Well thanks to having a combined family Christmas this year, we had Thanksgiving available and when round-trip flights to Turkey came up for a mere $500, how could we not go?  The built-in pun also delighted me to no end (not as much for Jaime), and a few phone calls later we booked the tickets!  Lydia did not come with us this time — we are still wary of taking her on extended flights, especially when we would only be in Istanbul for 3.5 days (being last minute, we couldn’t get time off work).

After booking the flights and spreading the news, people came out of the woodwork with a lot of great ideas and advice for what to do and see while we were there.  One recent hire at work is from Istanbul and gave me a full three day itinerary!  We did our best to put together all the must-sees into our own rough list before heading off.

Departure and arrival

We left on Tuesday night, right after work.  Our flights were uneventful, as well as the brief layover in Zurich.  Jaime and I like to use local, usually public, transportation whenever possible, so we mapped out the metro to tram route to our hotel.  It was actually quite easy and we ended up using the tram throughout our trip.  It’s about $1.50 a ride and there’s a stop about a block from our hotel (on purpose) so it’s a great way to see the city or get back quickly after a long day of walking.

We then checked into the Pierre Loti hotel, where we were warmly welcomed and given vouchers for a free drink at the rooftop bar.  The room was a bit small, but it wasn’t really a problem.  The location and views more than made up for it.  We had not yet gotten our orientation, so we didn’t venture too far out for dinner and landed at a place just a few doors down from the hotel.  Afterward, we noticed a fair amount of people going into an open gate at a large tomb across the street from our hotel and decided to see where they were going.  Walking through the tomb with graves on each side at night was pretty surreal, and on the other side we found a hookah and tea place.  We just had some tea, which was quite amazing and very cheap (~$1), and called it a night.

Day 1

For our first full day, we decided to take on as much of Old Town as possible.  Istanbul is essentially made up of three peninsulas and Old Town is the southwestern one we were staying in.  We strolled down to the Basilica Cistern, a 6th century cistern, and the largest of hundreds of them all around the city.  It was forgotten about for centuries, but we are so glad it was rediscovered and cleared out for all to enjoy.  It was an insanely amazing experience.  It’s dimly lit and there is some ambient music playing as you casually walk among the 336 massive marble columns.  At the far end there are two columns with Medusa heads at the base.  Their origins are unknown, but you can see and feel the history of the place as you gaze at them.

Next, we crossed the street and went to the huge Blue Mosque, built in 1616.  It’s an iconic place and is often shown in pictures of Istanbul.  It is still an active mosque, so it closes to tourists during prayer times.  Jaime wore a headscarf she had brought, but once inside, we noticed that the only non-Muslims wearing headscarves were American tourists.  We thought it was a very interesting observation, and a little disrespectful.  On the way out, we actually saw a group of Japanese tourists fake praying and laughing in the corner.  We decided that American tourists get a bad stereotypical rap after that display.

Up next was the nearby Hagia Sophia, built in 536, that has been used by various christian religions and then as a mosque before being converted to a museum in 1931.  It is a massive structure and you can feel the history of it.  The domes are enormous and you can see the influences over time.  There are angels apparently covered up by “restorers”, beautiful golden mosaics, and then large circular Arabic signs seemingly slapped up around the interior.  After seeing an exit from an unknown area, I asked the guard how to get back there, and he pointed us to a staircase on the other side.  This unique ancient walkway took us up to the Upper Gallery with some incredible views of where we had been, along with the best mosaics in the place.  Don’t miss it!

Then we were off to Topkapi Palace, the home of generations of sultans, which was right next door.  The external grounds contained a large church and many walkways, but it was just the tip of the iceberg   Once inside the gates, with two large towers on each side, it opens up into a massive courtyard ringed by buildings filled with huge collections of antiquities, including an armory, ceramics, and a massive 86 carat diamond.   There were kids everywhere, so this must be a popular field trip spot.  Just when we thought we had seen it all, we went down a short path and staircase and it opened up into yet another large area.  This one contained a lot more free standing buildings, including libraries, a circumcision room (don’t ask), and various lounges across two levels (technically two courtyards).  This area also had some amazing views of the river and New City.

I had read about a Harem within the palace grounds, but after already spending hours walking around, we thought we must have seen it and not noticed.  The only thing that gave us pause was that it was supposed to be a separate admission price for it, so I stopped and asked someone who directed us to a small door we somehow overlooked with a booth in front to buy your ticket.  Through the unassuming entrance, it suddenly took you back through time.  Outside among the open spaces, it felt more like various museums, but in the Harem, you were completely submersed in a labyrinth of lounge rooms, plazas, kitchens, and so on.  You could feel the history and imagine living there and wandering from building to building.  It ended up being our favorite part of the palace.

Being Thanksgiving back in the states, we were on a hunt to find some turkey to eat.  It wasn’t as easy as we hoped, but we found it at an English pub.  It certainly wasn’t an authentic Turkish meal, but it was a fun departure and a check mark on my bucket list.  After a brief visit to the New Mosque near the Golden Horn (waterway), we got lost for a bit before finally finding the famous Spice Market.  It’s a covered bazaar full of shops selling various spices, sweets, and trinkets.  The spices were piled high along tables, walls, or in large bags, and you paid for everything by the kilo.  We narrowed it down to just two spices but now that they are nearly gone as I write this, I wish we had gotten more!  We left the market and headed south towards the Grand Bazaar.  We didn’t intend on doing much shopping there this day, but it was on our way back to the hotel, so we quickly walked through one corner of it and made a mental note of some things we wanted to pick up later.  We made a quick stop at the hotel before walking down the street looking for where to eat that night. After checking out a few menus, we saw a place with a large “Happy Thanksgiving Day” sign in their window and decided to give them our business.  Little did we know this place is a famous 1960s Hippie Trail place called the Pudding Shop (so of course we had to have some pudding).

Day 2

Today we decided to see the New City and take some kind of boat ride but we didn’t know what yet.  We had pamphlets for several Bosphorus River cruises, but they were all $40-60 and we figured we could do better haggling at the port.  We walked straight north from our hotel to the port and were surprised to find not a single person trying to sell river cruises.  I stopped into an information booth to see how we could get over to Asia (on the east side) and back to New City (in the north) and found a locals-boat that cost only $1.50 for each leg of the trip!  The Asian part of Istanbul is not very eventful (we landed in Uskudar).  It seems mostly residential, and while there were plenty of people around, there wasn’t much to do.  There were about a dozen men shining shoes near the port, and I decided to get a fresh shine, mostly for the experience.  After strolling along the river for a bit, we were about to head back when Jaime spotted a sign for a $5 Bosphorus tour, our kind of deal!  The tour was about an hour long and took us past a series of palaces and the expansive 15th century Rumeli Fortress where I’d like to visit next time.  On the way back to Uskudar, we found out that most of the other passengers were on an excursion from one of the two large cruise ships in port.  I can’t imagine how much more they paid for the exact same trip!

After our tour, we took another $1.50 ferry to Kabatas in the New City area.  We headed to Taksim Square and after walking up a few hundred stairs and asking a few locals, we finally found it.  The square is a large open area with a memorial statue in the middle.  We stopped for our first delicious doner sandwich, which is chicken carved off a large spinning spike, similar to how you see gyros made, before heading down the famous pedestrian-only Istiklal Street.  It was a nice long casual stroll, although a bit drizzly, and we stopped for dessert at a cafe recommended by a coworker called Saray Muhallebicisi.  About 2/3rds the way down the main drag, we stopped at  the medieval stone Galata Tower, built in 1348.  At the top, we had stunning views of all three Istanbul peninsulas and were greeted by rainbows.  Definitely worth the slight wait to get up there.  There’s also a fancy restaurant up there which we may have to do next time.

Having successfully conquered New City, we finished the walk down the hill and started our way across the bridge back to Old Town.  Our hotel had recommended a restaurant literally under the bridge, and while we didn’t end up going to that particular place, we thought it was a cool idea and went down the steps to see what it was all about.  There were about 20 restaurants on both sides of the bridge and they all had a guy standing outside trying to convince you to each at their place.  We dodged a few of them and went with a funny English guy.  Not so surprisingly, they attempted to upsell us from the $30 fish we saw outside to a $140 fish inside.  They didn’t know who they were dealing with and we held our ground and afterward had a very nice dinner with great views of the river and coastline, which gets better at night.

There was an episode of Amazing Race in Istanbul where they had a wacky ice cream-serving guy do a whole funny performance.  We nearly forgot about it when we saw an ice cream guy of our own near the hotel and had to do it.  He was very entertaining and had us laughing the whole time as he spun the ice cream and tricked us into taking an empty cone or no cone at all several times.  After a quick stop at the hotel, we went wandering into the night.  Istanbul is a great city for wandering at all hours.  There’s so much character to the city at every turn.  We did some people watching from a hookah bar in a random alley, then went to a bar named Cozy’s where we got slightly intoxicated.  Afterward, we went on the hunt for late night doners and luckily found a place that really hit the spot.

Day 3

Our last day in Istanbul was kind of a hodgepodge of miscellaneous things we wanted to do/see.  We started off by going to a textile area of the city that we saw on the tram ride into town to indulge in Jaime’s recent addiction to fabrics.  There were easily 100 different shops with various fabrics and widely different prices.  Some places had a square meter for $3 while others had similar fabrics for $60.  Jaime ended up with two nice ones, one of which we paid for by the kilo (which turns out to be quite a large amount of fabric!).

Our next stop was the old City Walls of Constantinople, started in the 4th century and built and rebuilt over time.  Strangely, the walls were not really listed as an attraction in many places, and were only included on one of the many maps that we had of the city.  We couldn’t find any information about tours or historically significant areas, so we just took the tram to a nearby stop and made our own tour!  The walls were very impressive and you could see them stretch off into the distance in both directions.  It was in various stages of disrepair, where the part north of the tram line seemed more modern and up-kept (Jaime’s favorite section) and the part we visited south was crumbling and cracked (my favorite).  There were a couple of paths along the walls, and one that went through a small gate.  It is a very underrated destination and we had a great time, at least until we were being followed by what we hoped was just a plainclothes policeman seemingly making sure we weren’t going to climb on them.  Once we spotted him, we headed back to the tram for our next destination.

After a bit of a walk from the next tram stop, we made it to the Valens Aqueduct, a 4th century two-level Roman aqueduct.  The surviving section is over 3,000 feet long (only a bit short of its original length), and there is six lane busy road that travels directly through it.  This was another destination that wasn’t on many maps and wasn’t really set up for tourism, so you could only really admire it and move on.  We went to lunch at a nearby place that sold both doners and something I kept seeing and wanting that looked kind of like a canoe made out of pizza (both yummy!).

We continued our walk with the Grand Bazaar in our sights.  This time we spent a lot of time there and did nearly half of our Christmas shopping!  We had anticipated doing this and brought a completely empty suitcase with us, which ironically Swiss Air claimed was too heavy for a carry-on and made us check it on the way there.  The bazaar is one of the oldest in the world and covers a whopping 61 streets with over 3,000 shops.  With this many shops, there is obviously a lot of repetitive things for sale, but that’s mostly a good thing because there’s no way you could see it all!  This bazaar in particular is known for having aggressive shopkeepers, but we didn’t really encounter that at all.  Maybe they are more intimidating in the peak seasons.

We dropped off all of our purchases at the hotel and looked up good restaurants near us.  We found one called Sofa but didn’t have high hopes of finding the actual address, so we just set out towards an area that seemed to have a lot of highly rated restaurants on the map. This area was south of the Blue Mosque and we’re glad we picked this area because we hadn’t seen this part of town before.  It was full of tourist shops, hostels, hotels, and of course restaurants.  Just our luck, right when we exited a sort of outdoor mall, the first place we saw was Sofa, so we had to try it.  It had a great ambiance and the food was delicious.  We highly recommend dining at Sofa.

That officially ended our quick trip to Istanbul.  We had such a great time and can’t wait to go back to experience more of the city and other parts of Turkey.  Our return flight left at 5am, and I didn’t want to risk sleeping through the alarm, so I stayed up all night while Jaime slept a bit.  Our flights were uneventful and we got back Sunday evening just in time to return to the real world while only missing a single business day!